Centrifugal Deforest

I started a new blog, Centrifugal Deforest – Stock Market at a Lance. It will update each market day and is focused on the upcoming bear market in the US; whenever it comes; this year, next year or sometime in your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s future – I will be there.

The name doesn’t really refer to the stock market – hell, it doesn’t refer to the stock market in the least. And apparently I am breaking all the finer rules for smart blog-naming. So, perhaps the name is clunky, meaningless and impossible to remember.

Actually, it is not totally meaningless. Centrifugal Deforest was the term that sprang to mind some years back when I heard the pseudo-scientific theory that the Earth’s rotation is beginning to accelerate as the world’s tall trees come down. Exactly the way the ice skater spins faster and faster as the arms are brought inward.

So until I am forced to re-name, like virtually every project in the past, I’m sticking with it.

Comment

Where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from?

AlibabaEarlier this year, the International Herald Tribune put the spotlight on Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba.com:

“I’m a normal guy,” he said during a recent interview in Singapore. “I feel ashamed because I feel I’m stealing the contribution of my team. They made it; my job is more, ‘Let’s go do it.'”

Started in 1999, Alibaba International is now the world’s largest online business-to-business marketplace, with more than 500,000 people visiting the site every day and 2.5 million registered users from more than 200 countries. By targeting small and midsize companies, the site, for example, allows a mom-and-pop toy maker in China to sell directly to a shopkeeper in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, Alibaba China has become the largest Chinese-language business-to-business marketplace with around 14 million registered users. The privately held company does not reveal its financial data. However, Alibaba’s deals with Yahoo in 2005 — in which Yahoo took a 40 percent stake in Alibaba, while folding its own China business into Alibaba’s — valued the Chinese company at about $3 billion at the time, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

Today, it was announced that Alibaba.com Ltd., operator of China’s largest trading Web site for companies, and its parent may raise as much as HK$10.3 billion ($1.3 billion) in a Hong Kong initial public offering that attracted investors including Yahoo! Inc., according to this Bloomberg article.

So, you might be asking, “Is this where the forty thieves come in?” alluding to the tale of The Thousand and One Nights. We’ll leave that for the financial analysts to consider. But what of the brand? Is it not counter-intuitive for a trading company to choose a name that might be associated with thieves? More about that later, but first: where did Alibaba, the brand name, come from? On a company forum on the Internet, we found this discussion quoting an interview with Alibaba.com’s CEO, Jack Ma:

LH – Now Alibaba… Fancy name, catchy too! But it conjures up, at least to me, something to do with thieves, not legitimate business. Why Alibaba?

JM – One day I was in San Francisco in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said do you know about Alibaba? And she said yes. I said what do you know about Alibaba, and she said ‘Open Sesame.’ And I said yes, this is the name! Then I went onto the street and found 30 people and asked them, ‘Do you know Alilbaba’? People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China… They all knew about Alibaba. Alibaba — open sesame. Alibaba — 40 thieves. Alibaba is not a thief. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So…easy to spell, and global know. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name AliMama, in case someone wants to marry us!

Alibaba is a provocation.

Many of the best names are provocations: Virgin, Yahoo, Caterpillar, Fannie Mae, Gap, Banana Republic, Crossfire. To qualify as a provocation, a name must contain what most people would call “negative messages” for the goods and services the name is to represent.

Fortunately, consumers process these negative messages positively. As long as the name maps to one of the positioning points of the brand, consumers never take its meaning literally, and the negative aspects of the name just give it greater depth.

Nothing is more powerful than taking a word with a strong, specific connotation, grabbing a slice of it, mapping that slice to a portion of your positioning, and therefore redefining it. This naming strategy is without question the most powerful one of all.

Comment

Coining words and the caprice in names

Great little article about word coinage and naming by Steven Pinker in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, How do we come up with words? Here is a morsel, about the viral nature of baby names and the human tendency to want to be different, but not too different:

Many people assume these fads are inspired by celebrities (Marilyn Monroe made Marilyn popular) or social trends (biblical names are popular during religious revivals; androgynous names are a legacy of feminism). But sociologist Stanley Lieberson has pored through naming data and disproved every one of these hypotheses. The cause of baby names is other baby names. Parents have an ear for names that are a bit distinctive (as if to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice not to name your son William because every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William) without being too distinctive (only celebrities can get away with naming their children Moon Unit or Banjo). The trends arise when everyone tries to be moderately distinctive and ends up being moderately distinctive in the same way.

I love that advice from Sam Goldwyn. And that bit about everyone trying to be distinctive but ending up being “moderately distinctive in the same way” reminds me of the clusters of like names we see in nearly every industry. Take SUV names, for instance, where all the automakers tend to promote a “rugged individualist” theme, then serve up the same kind of names for their vehicles, often named to evoke either the idea of exploration — Blazer, Discovery, Expedition, Navigator, Safari, Scout, Tracker, Trooper — or of a mythic rugged western pioneer landscape — Montana, Rainier, Santa Fe, Sequoia, Sonoma, Tacoma, Tahoe, Yukon. So all of you rugged individualists out there looking express your distinctiveness through your choice of ride, these big beasts of cars are betraying that ideal by blending their names in with each other.

Also fascinating in this article is the idea that naming trends cannot be reliably predicted or engineered, because they are dependent upon the behavior of the masses, and that behavior is chaotic:

Pundits often treat a culture as if it were a superorganism that pursues goals and finds meaning, just like a person. But the fortunes of words, a cultural practice par excellence, don’t fit that model. Names change with the times, yet they don’t fulfill needs, don’t reflect other social trends and aren’t driven by role models or Madison Avenue. A “trend” is shorthand for the aggregate effects of millions of people making decisions while anticipating and reacting to the decisions made by others, and these dynamics can be stubbornly chaotic.

This unpredictability holds a lesson for our understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture — every fashion, ritual, common belief — must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, until it becomes endemic to a community. The caprice in names suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for other mores and customs.

Yes. Beware of “expert” opinion that labors to convince you that “scientific” explanations — linguistics, focus groups, trend analysis — trumps good old fashioned meaning, story, history, mythology, poetry, rhythm, and shared knowledge when considering names for companies, products, or services. Anything else is just putting ketchup on a potato bug.

Comment